COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 12
(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)
Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics
“With these things defined, let us examine closely whether happiness is something praised or rather honored, for it is clear it does not belong among the capacities, at any rate. Now, everything praised appears to be praised for its being of a certain sort and for its condition relative to something: we praise the just person, the courageous person, and, in general, the good person as well as virtue itself, on account of the action and works involved; and we praise the strong man and the swift runner and each of the rest for their being, by nature, of a certain sort and for their condition in relation to something good and serious. This is also clear on the basis of the praises offered to the gods, since it is manifestly laughable for them to be compared to us; but this happens because praise arises through comparison, as we said. And if praise is of things of that sort, it is clear that not praise, but something greater and better than praise applies to the best things, as in fact appears to be the case: the gods we deem blessed and happy, and the most divine of men we deem blessed.
The case is similar with the good things too, none praise happiness the way they praise justice; rather, people deem happiness a blessed thing, on the grounds that it is something more divine and better. And Eodoxus too seems to have nobly pleaded his case that the first prize belongs to pleasure. For the fact that it is not praised as being among the good things reveals, he supposed, that it is superior to the things praised; and such, he supposed, is the god and the good. For it is to these that all else is compared. Indeed, praise belongs to virtue: people are apt to do noble things as a result of virtue, whereas encomiums belong to the works of both body and soul alike. But perhaps being very precise about these things is more appropriate to those who have labored over encomiums; to us it is clear, on the basis of what has been said, that happiness belongs among the things that are honored and complete. This seems to be the case also on account of its being a principle: for it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and we posit the principle and the cause of the good things as being something honorable and divine. ” (NE, 1101b10-1102a4; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES
1) Aren’t we somewhat caught off guard by the sudden appearance of this extremely short and striking, not to say strange and foreign, subsection? But then again, should be really SO surprised by its appearance if we have listened carefully to what Ar. has said (and not said) in previous subsections? For isn’t this subsection a “recapitulation” of sorts? Doesn’t Ar. here once again mention the courageous man and the just man, the exemplars of political life in a sense? For, what is there to be of political life without its defenders in battle and its defenders in virtue? And, what is there to be of political life without the just and their healthy obedient submission to the law? But also, doesn’t Ar. mention once again the athletic humans who, we imagine, participate in the kind of competitions Ar. mentioned way back in subsection I, 8; namely, the swift runner/the strong man? Weren´t we there led to think, like Nietzsche has us believe about that Greeks, that Ar. too favored primarily this competitive politically inspired spirit (for the athlete, as in the Olympics, REPRESENTS his city/nation, doesn’t he?)? And, if happiness is related not to a capacity as Ar. himself puts it here (though he will question this at 2.1 and 2.5 (see section IV below)), but rather perhaps to a kind of activity (let us assume so for a moment), then —to our amazement— this ODD short section would certainly seem to point out that the highest form of activity is NOT that characteristic of those who consider themselves and are considered to be the just and the courageous and the sportive within society, wouldn’t it? But honestly speaking, who could be more active than, for instance, the courageous? Isn´t war THE action par excellence? “But what, more exactly, is so astounding?”, a reader might ask. Well, precisely that if we are looking for the architectonic science which “calls the shots” as regards the good and happiness, then even here, when we are just barely finishing ONLY BOOK I of the NE —–out of 10 difficult books all complex in their own right, and besides without ANY sustained argumentation having explicitly pointed in this direction—— Ar. CLEARLY gives the adherents to political life previously mentioned as “appearing” to be the architectonic good (I, 2) ONLY a SECONDARY position, doesn’t he? And if all this is at least half so, then we need ask why many interpreters are so SURPRISED, as we have argued in previous subsections, once Ar. reaches similar conclusions at the END of the NE in Book X? Put another way, what is it about OUR current paradigmatic forms of philosophical understanding that the overall direction of Ar. own thought cannot be seen, let alone properly appreciated? However, in the just and courageous defense of ourselves: haven’t OUR commentaries at least pointed —- however inadequately, of course—- in THIS direction? For instance, haven’t we painstakingly mentioned again and again the “conundrums of courage”? That is to say, how exactly will courage in defending one´s own come to line up with the happiness in being one´s own?
But let us move back a bit, and ask again: How exactly did we GET HERE? What if this passage held the KEY to the whole of the NE? Actually, one could argue that one could seriously dedicate one’s whole life to an understanding of this passage alone, couldn’t one? But also, isn’t what we learn from other commentators even more revealing and perplexing in this regard? For isn’t it striking to see, for instance JOACHIM —in his very detailed, almost line-by-line commentary—- speaking of this passage in the following terms: “The passage has no philosophical interest, as indeed Aristotle himself recognizes … when he says that the topic is more appropriate (to those who have made a study of encomia) (Joachim, p. 61) But, why exactly does Joachim say it has “no philosophical interest”, as IF Ar. here ONLY, or even primarily, spoke of encomia? Perhaps, wouldn’t it be more precise to say that it is of no philosophical interest to JOACHIM? (!) For wouldn’t it be odd that Ar., who is so careful in all his philosophical endeavors, once again slipped up —do remember how we were once told there were three lives only to find out there were really, really four (!)——and added a subsection which was really, really, not relevant as Joachim claims? Wouldn’t that kind of interpretative attitude be in the same ballpark as those who say that the books on the virtues must be “skipped over as irrelevant”? But isn’t this a kind of a reflective surrender? For even if we cannot fully ANSWER a puzzle, shouldn’t we at least RECOGNIZE the puzzle for what it is in the first place? And what if our philosophical interests as MODERN philosophers were genuinely FOREIGN to those of Aristotle? Wouldn’t it then become OBVIOUS that we wouldn’t see them? For what if we could not even see the problematic nature of justice itself (one might think of the differing roles played by the Greek dikaiosune in Ar., in contrast to the concept of Recht in both Kant and Hegel: for a personal political example see here)? Moreover, aren´t we also struck by the fact that this subsection 12 of BOOK I is kind of a conclusion —–or very close to a conclusion, as Book I is composed of 13 subsections—– to the introductory BOOK I we are almost about to finish?
Let us be a bit bold before looking at the details: could this be making explicit Ar.‘s own hypothesis which will, following Plato’s dialectical reasoning in the Republic, truly be a steppingstone by means of which we will ascend to give the principle which at the start must be assumed, its real power, argumentative solidity and living strength? As Plato allows Socrates to say:
“Well, then, go on to understand that by the other segment of the intelligible I mean that which argument itself grasps with the power of dialectic, making the hypotheses not beginnings but really hypotheses—that is, steppingstones and springboards—in order to reach what is free from hypothesis at the beginning of the whole. When it has grasped this, argument now depends on that which depends on this beginning and in such fashion goes back down again to an end;”(my emphasis: Republic, 511b)
And thus we ask, conscious we are entering deep waters: will we (or better, some of Ar. listeners) by the end of the NE be much less puzzled and much more aware about why this passage reveals the direction of the whole: that is to say, the whole of the text, and even the whole of our lives? Isn’t this why Ar. ends this extremely strange subsection by SUDDENLY making reference to THE principle (arche)? That is to say, doesn´t he write as regards happiness (eudaimonia):
“This seems to be the case also on account of its being a principle: for it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and we posit the principle and the cause of the good things as being something honorable and divine.”
Or put yet another way, what we mean to ask dialectically is whether by the end of the NE this principle posited as a hypothesis (understood as a steppingstone) will have been rationally proven to be THE principle by which some of us choose to lead our lives (and perhaps aid a few interested others in at least trying to have a faint image of its presence)? Or put still another way, will this principle achieve life beyond mere formality, freeing the hypothesis “at the beginning of the whole”? Or will we, pace Ar., end up in a kind of Kantian formalism which remains quite aloof both from the way the best of statesmen/stateswomen actually do lead their political, as well as from the way the best of living philosophers live theirs?
2) But leaving aside such perplexing —perhaps even counterproductive (!)—- generalities,we must ask as regards the specifics of the subsection: why does Ar. ONCE again give us an either/or, namely happiness is EITHER praised OR honored? Why not leave it at its being USEFUL, as modern Utilitarianism has it? Or, why not take the AESTHETIC route as Nietzsche does in his reference to Stendhal? Or, why not leave it at CIVILITY as in Locke? Why is Ar. so reticent to go DOWN these modern roads? Isn´t Ar., instead, rather keen on puzzling philosophically about utility, beauty and civility (nobility)? Why don´t WE seem to puzzle thus? Or, from a different point of view: don´t we find in the religious Spanish word “alabar”, for instance, BOTH a praising and an honoring of God? I mean, does THAT difference —between praising and honoring— make ANY sense as we read the Bible (see section III below)? Is there really ANY difference between praising and honoring God in the Bible? What is Ar. getting at then? Why does he wish to separate them thus, and so poignantly? Where is the alleged “Aristotelian flexibility” so many interpreters seem to speak of, to be found here? Or, is it rather than when seeking rationally the TRUTH about the essential, tough choices are in order?
For truly Ar. says, happiness can be either something PRAISED (τῶν ἐπαινετῶν) OR something honored (τῶν τιμίων)? But doesn´t this assertion lead US to an even more EXTREME puzzle? For doesn’t Ar. seem to be going at the argument as if HE HAD NEVER said anything about honor in the first place? However, didn’t he tell us —in what, it is true, seems a long time ago— that the life of honor is only SECONDARY to that of contemplation (the latter which of course, as we pointed out, Ar. mentioned ONLY to silence immediately!). But shouldn’t WE refresh our memory and recall the words Ar. had told us just some subsections before as regards the nature of “honor”, namely: “but it appears to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honor seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one’s own and a thing not easily taken away”? So, a bit dizzy we ask: do we understand clearly? According to subsection I, 5, the life of honor is NOT the highest in part because it depends on the recognition by others, right? But NOW Ar. asks us to consider the question as to whether happiness is PRAISED OR HONORED? But isn’t what we hear here about praise EXTREMELY akin to what we have heard about honor previously, specially as regards its being dependent on others? Let’s listen to what Ar. himself has to say regarding PRAISE in THIS subsection I, 12: “Now, everything praised appears to be praised for its being of a certain sort and for its condition relative to something … because praise arises through comparison.” Now we need ask, what makes these two —-that is to say, the honor of previous subsections and the praise of this subsection—– SO different? And to make things even MORE confusing; isn’t Ar. asking us HERE to really see the radical difference between PRAISE and HONOR with regards to the best, most complete and self-sufficient principle which IS happiness? Unlike Joachim, we must persevere in our puzzle, mustn’t we? Isn’t this dramatic tension precisely why we say again that one could spend one’s entire life trying to understand this, usually found to be rather irrelevant passage? Continue Reading »